Translating Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ to the stage
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“I am an invisible man.”
Ralph Ellison wrote that sentence in 1945, when he was a young man on leave from the merchant marine. Those five words captured the experience of many African-Americans of the era, and from that simple declaration, Ellison carved his masterpiece, the 1952 novel “Invisible Man.”
The book follows the story of a black man who holes up in a basement lair in Harlem, where he reflects on his life. He has been badgered, beaten, and betrayed. He has endured the trauma of electric shock treatment. He is unseen, but he longs to find his identity. He is a soul-searching American hero, an epic figure of Shakespearean size.
The enduring novel vibrates with rich language and visual imagery. It probes the great themes of American literature — the inequities of race and class, the struggle for success, the search for identity — yet for almost 60 years, it was never made into a movie or a play. Recently, that changed. Oren Jacoby’s adaptation of “Invisible Man” makes its New England debut through Feb. 3 at the Huntington Theatre Company, in a co-production with the Studio Theatre of Washington, D.C., where it opened in September. The play premiered a year ago at the Court Theatre in Chicago, and the creative team hopes to bring it to New York this year, which is the centennial of Ellison’s birth.
But how do you stage a play about a character who doesn’t even have a name?
That was a daunting task for Jacoby, who dreamed up the idea a decade ago while chatting with his friend John Callahan. They were in the basement cafeteria of the American Museum of Natural History on New York’s Upper West Side, not so many blocks from Harlem, where Ellison once lived. As Ellison’s literary executor, Callahan controls the rights to the novel, and Jacoby sought his approval.
Callahan didn’t say yes and he didn’t say no. He offered a firm maybe.
“He told me I could do it on spec,’’ Jacoby recalls. “There were a million reasons not to do it, but at a certain point, I realized that if I don’t try this, I’ll regret it.”
The literary executor had his reasons for skepticism. Ellison, who died in 1994, turned down offers from many Hollywood producers, including Quincy Jones and Sidney Lumet. “Ellison thought it was every inch a novel,” Callahan says. “He would have doubted if it could be done effectively for the stage.”
Jacoby wondered that himself over the years. The novel opens in a basement hideaway in Harlem, where the protagonist lives underground in a room illuminated by 1,369 light bulbs. The story unfolds in his head, as he narrates a picaresque tale that traces his journey from the South to the North, where he takes a job at a company that manufactures white paint.
The adaptation is faithful to the book, which clocks in at nearly 600 pages. Jacoby cut and elided the text, but every word in the script comes straight from the novel, and he stresses that he is not imposing his own style on the piece. “It’s not my voice,’’ Jacoby says. “I am just the tailor cutting the beautiful garment.”
Without being asked, Jacoby raises a sensitive issue: that neither he nor director Christopher McElroen is black. “I think there is the question of ‘Why are these white boys doing this play?’ It’s the elephant in the room,” Jacoby says. But he also suggests that their affinity for the novel is a more important factor than race. “I was tempted and connected by the language and the story,” he says. Growing up in New York, he was immersed in black popular culture, which influenced his aesthetic. He was also inspired, he says, by the work of Athol Fugard, the white South African playwright whose major work champions the struggle of black South Africans oppressed under apartheid.
Jacoby, who is also a documentary filmmaker, staged a reading of the play at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005. It was there that he met McElroen, cofounder of the Classical Theatre of Harlem. Nothing came of the play until 2009, when McElroen left the uptown theater. “I lost a certain sense of my own creativity,’’ McElroen says of his departure. In solace, he picked up a copy of “Invisible Man” and reread it. Inspired, he contacted Jacoby.
Since then, the play has undergone an ambitious developmental process. The pair conducted weeklong workshops at several universities, where they collaborated with students and academics. “We wanted to work with people who were smarter than us when it comes to all things Ellison,” McElroen says.
They spent a week at the University of Iowa, where Lena Hill, assistant professor of English and African-American studies, put together a series of forums about the novel and about race and identity in the mid-20th century. Fanny McConnell Ellison, the novelist’s late wife, graduated from the university in 1936. She majored in theater, but wasn’t allowed to perform onstage because she was black. The conference included a panel discussion featuring African-American graduates who had similar experiences.Continued...